Big Ideas, Small Houses

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Canadian architects in all provinces were busy at work producing residential designs for a growing urban population. Some of these designs were submitted to what was until 1979 known as the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), in response to its Small House Design Scheme. After making a selection of desirable house plans, the CMHC published a number of catalogues for prospective homebuyers who could visit a CMHC branch located in their community and choose a new dream home for their family.

These house designs respected the latest building standards at the time and any architectural practice submitting a design had their name associated with the drawings. The CMHC paid architects a fee of $1,000 for every selected house design, plus royalties of $3 for every set of working drawings sold. For $10, a new homebuyer could buy a set of blueprints for a high-quality architect-designed home.

In the early 1950s, bungalows, one-and-a-half-storey and two-storey house designs were each dedicated to their own specific booklet. By the 1960s, these homes would be joined by a range of split-level house designs and assembled into one book that would cover all kinds of single detached dwellings. With the exception of Small House Designs–Duplexes, (Ottawa: CMHC, 1949) which appears to have been specifically directed to a Quebec audience, where duplexes have been quite popular –no catalogue was ever dedicated to any other housing type than the single detached dwelling. Interestingly, throughout the two decades in question, Canadian homebuyers were unaware that their views directly influenced what was included in these publications. Plans that sold well were kept in subsequent catalogues, while those that didn’t were replaced with trendier ones.

CMHC catalogue designs were largely geared towards people building in small urban areas across Canada who did not have easy access to professional services, particularly those of architects. Rapid urbanization also meant educating Canadians about the importance of architecture. CMHC catalogues in 1954 included sectional perspective sketches that illustrated housing types and explanations on how to read floor-plan sketches–even going so far as to explain the meaning of their symbols.

Seemingly straightforward, the plan procurement method adopted by the CMHC raised a lot of concern amongst architects who felt as though they were being taken advantage of. Following the weak response of the profession to an architectural competition organized by the CMHC and endorsed by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada in 1946, the CMHC decided to adopt another method for gathering house plans. Around 1949, in a report entitled Research and Educational Projects, it had been discovered that only 50 percent of the competition’s respondents were practicing architects. Because the architectural profession had largely ignored the CMHC’s request to contribute designs for new houses on the cheap, Canada’s national housing corporation claimed that it was better “to abandon this method of obtaining new ideas from the practicing profession” and “to undertake…research under direct CMHC responsibility.” With no established design guidelines in place, a Plan Selection Committee was set up in March 1950 and devised a process whereby only licensed Canadian architects were allowed to submit for consideration any number of house plans at their own discretion.

When enough sketches were gathered, the CMHC-led committee met and selected the winning schemes. Successful applicants were sent a letter of acceptance and an invitation to prepare working drawings that respected the building standards of the day. The Chief Plans Examiner of the CMHC Loans Division would develop a list of any needed changes when reviewing these drawings. Known as “preliminaries,” the list of changes was sent back to the architect for modification and resubmission. When all the criteria were met, a contract was drawn up between the CMHC and the architect.

Well-known architects like Henry Fliess (Toronto), Ray Affleck (Montreal) or Gustavo da Roza (Winnipeg) had their plans included in the catalogues at a time when their practices were rapidly expanding. With impeccable graphic presentation, the residential catalogues offered an array of seemingly award-wining house designs. Nonetheless, remaining documents stored in the National Archives belie the overall success of the program. Countless letters from architects demanded to know why their designs were rejected. In response, the CMHC would simply state, “your design was not suitable for our purposes.” Only very determined applicants received an answer from the CMHC when complaining about the lack of guidelines. The CMHC would often answer, “If we knew what we were looking for, we wouldn’t be asking you!” While the National Archives in Ottawa hold all CMHC files dated between 1946 and 1987, many files prior to 1961 were destroyed by the CMHC for a lack of storage space–which makes it difficult to research our evolving postwar national housing policy.

According to Andrew Hazeland, former secretary of the Plan Selection Committee, its members didn’t see themselves as “taste-makers” of the day. Most plans observed a rather similar segregation of day- and night-spaces specific to postwar residential design, and a few of the texts accompanying the successful drawings advise that the houses should “hug the ground” in an approach to site planning befitting middle-class acceptance. To complement their plan catalogues, CMHC publications like Choosing a House Design (1956) and Principles of Small House Design (1957) made strong suggestions as to the cardinal orientation of one’s house or an appropriate relationship to the street front.

At the time, Canadian Architect magazine was among the very few voices which argued that the financial agreement of the scheme was unethical in accordance with most provincial legislation. As well, the editors commented that the scheme was producing an “abominable” hotchpotch of small houses instead of a “building-unit system which would allow each family to assemble its own house on its own lot–tailored to the existing site conditions and to the family’s needs and future growth.”

Although professional magazines would naturally promote architects’ own houses and high-end designs, popular magazines focused on less sophisticated designs for the general public. For example, Canadian Homes and Gardens advanced a scheme called “Select Homes” which was similar to the CMHC catalogues at the time. In August 1954, Canadian Home Journal gave ample coverage to a competition titled Home ’54. Similar to the CMHC Small House Design Scheme, this initiative was only interested in soliciting ideas from licensed Canadian architects.

Whether these separate programs were influenced by the CMHC Small House Design Scheme or vice versa is hardly relevant. The important point to remember is the drive of such schemes to produce and advertise affordable designs “suitable for all the temperate zones of Canada–from ocean to ocean.” Interestingly, Home ’54 also looked at plan flexibility: proposed designs submitted for this competition should have been modifiable to accommodate empty-nesters. In a time of economic crisis, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for both professionals and homebuyers to consider revisiting the opportunity to develop new trends in single-family living, albeit using a system that is equitable to architects, government and future homebuyers.

Ioana Teodorescu is currently looking to interview architects who submitted drawings to the CMHC for the Small House Design Scheme during 1947-1974, as well as architects who produced house plans for developers and/or for other such schemes/competitions mentioned in this article during the same period. She is also interested to hear from builders who built houses from the CMHC catalogues. Ioana may be contacted by e-mail at ioana.teodorescu@mail.mcgill.ca or by telephone at 613.850.6016.

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